Barcelona is one of those odd cities. There’s so much to do, but I don’t know if I like it. It is Spain’s second city and is arguably far more varied than the capital, yet I never feel comfortable there. It has its obvious strengths: the exciting port area, the eternally lauded Gaudí flourishes, the atmospheric bar-filled streets of the Born neighbourhood and, of course, the ever-present beauty of the Mediterranean.
Barcelona is, however, full of such a number of negative aspects that they threaten to undermine the whole of this ancient city. First of all there is the abrupt, oppressive and alarming tourist presence. They are everywhere; filling the trains, the bars, the beaches, the roads. Barcelona is a city of hotspots where every tourist is programmed to visit and they do and thus those places are ruined: beach, old town, La Rambla, La Boqueria market, Sagrada Familia. Then there is the summer climate. The air is heavy and moist and clings to the skin. The metro tunnels are hot tubes of airless misery that burrow about in stark contrast to the air-conditioned paradise of the trains. A fifteen minute walk in the morning, out of the sun, will have you leaking from pores you didn’t even know existed. I immediately longed for the disgraceful, yet dry, heat of Madrid. Finally the great tragedy of the Barri Gòtic - the medieval town - whose old streets have adopted the air of a down-at-heel Segovia and whose shops are now garish light-filled gremlins peddling tourist tat. Its soul has been taken out, smashed into a pulp, and thrown into the wind.
Having already ‘seen’ Barcelona I wondered what I could do. There’s only so much interest left in seeing another example of kooky Gaudí or zany Domènech. I had three days.
I had decided to dedicate this Catalonian visit to one particular Spanish product: vermouth. Having quickly tired of the old town’s streets, that were, unfortunately, fighting for attention with both tat-sellers and a low drizzly sky, I looked for a place to get liquor. On my right passed the spiky Gothic spires of the cathedral; an edifice I immediately preferred to Gaudí’s brilliant nonsense. Then quickly through the Boqueria; a great carnival of food that is too busy to enjoy fully and sits just of Spain’s most awful road: La Rambla, where pickpockets work and police hunt.
Bodega Cala del Vermut was a little Catalan hideaway down an ugly backstreet. It was bright blue and about the size of a shoebox. Inside were three middle aged ladies barking at each other and an old gent at the bar. The walls were decorated with framed photos of Costa Brava coves, bottles of vermouth, and promotional alcohol posters. I ordered a vermouth de la casa; their own brew. It came in a small glass with an olive. Sweet and tickled with spice. I ordered a second in quick succession. Locals were coming and going. It was a heady mix of Catalan, that sounds like an inebriated Russian speaking Portuguese, and Spanish, that sounds like someone with a blocked nose is trying to get all of his words out of his mouth before he runs out of time. The old gent at the bar started to help out the owner, Antonio, in opening an old plastic telephone with a screwdriver. I ordered a third vermouth. I was starting to feel its effects so, given that nothing is free in Catalonia, ordered a small tapa of two little peppers stuffed with feta cheese.
The rain had abated as I stumbled out of the bar. I had a meeting with a Barcelona-based colleague at 14:30, so the executive decision was made to walk off the alcohol and stroll north through the Eixample neighbourhood: a vast, and incredibly well-planned, grid-like zone of handsome apartments. Designed to eliminate the class system and at the same time give locals space to live and breathe, Eixample felt like Madrid’s Salamanca district minus the price tag or obsessive manicuring.
Renee met me at Bodega Quimet; an old-man bar with barrels of vermouth and moscatel wine around the counter and wood everywhere. We ordered more vermut and a couple of tapas. Habas con jamón (broad beans served with ham and a fried egg), a piled up selection of conservas (anchovies, razor clams, cockles, tuna, peppers) in vinaigrette and some lively papas arrugadas, a Canary island dish of baked potatoes in a mojo picón sauce. And, of course, a couple more vermouths. When I asked the lady behind the bar where it was from she said Penedés: ‘It’s brought to us every couple of days on the back of a truck.’
As the sun started to head away to the other side of the world, I made my way to the sleepy, indistinct, but very pleasant neighbourhood of La Sagrera; the kind of place where people actually live. I met my friend Heather, who I was to stay with, had a drink and a nibble, and then, smelling quite fiercely of farmyard, jumped into a cold shower and melted into a mattress.
I didn’t want three full days in Barcelona. Firstly, because I was alone in a city I had visited already twice prior, and secondly because I wanted to do a day trip. There was a lot of choice. In lieu of coastal resorts like Tossa de Mar or Casteldefells or the already visited beauties of Girona or Montserrat, I chose to follow my boozing nose and headed to Reus: a town not really famous for anything.
I met with the good people of Miró: one of Spain’s great vermouth producers if not all that old. They have been producing the fine sweet liquor since 1957 and I was gladly shown around the factory as my head filled with the overpowering aromas from the spice mixes that sat funking in their barrels. I was dripping with sweat, producing dark flowers on my shirt, when I was introduced to the owner. He was jovial and shared the concern of his region’s abysmal summer climate. After an interview with both him and the head enologist I was whisked back to the town centre to enjoy Reus proper.
It wasn’t a wholly beautiful place, but it had a pleasant and handsome air to it. It was a town that was assured of its role in the area: wine. Even though Reus was the birthplace of a certain Antoni Gaudí, alcohol was king. At the Museu de Vermut - a ruined old hat factory converted into a smart restaurant - I basked in the air conditioning, sipped vermouth and gazed upon the walls all covered with advertising from all ages.
The main squares had a charm to them and were busied with terraces. The streets were generally easy on the eye and the town’s church was quite fine.
‘Even though we are a city of 100,000 people, we are still really a small village at heart.’ Said Laura Prats, my Miró family chauffeur and guide.
After showing me a little shop where locals could come in with bottles, jugs and buckets and fill up wine from barrels a granel, direct from the tap, she deposited me on some gooey and sun-drenched street and I searched for a place to drink away the next hour and a half. First was a place called Déu n’hi do! (Catalan for ‘My God!’) where I snuffled away a plate of mustardy potatoes, a chicken empanada and a vermouth bigger than my fist. Then to the Cerveceria Ferreteria - a former iron-monger converted into an old wooden bar decorated like some ancient two-storey Oxford library. Pull out drawers, scrolls and sliding stepladders. Another vermouth; a glass of Iris and a slice of lemon.
Reus, despite its attractive parochial character, didn’t have much to keep me long. I leaked through my shirt all the way back to Barcelona upon where I slept, showered, and then met my colleague again in the Born district for a final drink.
One more day in the big Catalan hub. I took my company’s food tour to help spice up my final moments. Lucia led me and a group of tourists around the Gracia neighbourhood for four hours. Sausage sandwiches, cheeses, olives, a bomba (a meat and mashed potato ball, breaded and fried and seemingly carved from angel dust), meatballs, Syrian sweets and, among other goodies, my dear old vermouth even made an appearance.
The neighbourhood was another piece of Barcelona that I felt right in. No tourists. It was a village that had once been connected to Barcelona by the Passeig de Gracia - the old dirt road that is now full of glamour shops and modernist frills. It was quiet and felt like the village it once was. Catalan flags draped the Juliet balconies as locals went about their morning business. The streets were not beautiful, but were ‘real’. It felt like some Castilian town out in the sticks - or by the fifth pine as they say here. For the first time in Barcelona I wasn’t swamped with hordes of camera-wielding packs or sunburnt bodies in swimming shorts.
But it was all too short. A morning of gluttony and a goodbye drink sent me on my way, smelling quite gravely of barnyard, to the airport and back to the dryness of Madrid.
Once again I had tried Barcelona. Tried to love it. It fascinated me. I found it interesting as a place. But still couldn’t love it. I wanted to go back though. For perhaps it is a victim its size. One can’t know Rome in a day - nor can one know Barcelona. However, as I found out, one can know its vermouth.